Outside from inside: A dreamy day safari in Khao Yai

Before all this malarkey kicked off, the last trip we took was to a favourite: Khao Yai National Park.

I hadn’t planned to write it up, as we’ve trodden the Khao Yai ground before on these pages – if you want a travel guide to Khao Yai, that’s it. But given a distinct lack of outdoor access right now, it’s kind of fun to take a virtual trip from memory. We can also focus a little more on the small things that we always took for granted. It’s not just sights, it’s sound, smell and sensation.

So if you’ve got 10 minutes spare (pretty likely let’s be honest), let’s go safari!

Daybreak: Your carriage awaits

As a quick primer on Khao Yai, it’s an area of quintessentially Thai craziness. The area is a sprawling national park around 2 hours on a good day from Bangkok. Khao Yai is very popular with Thai people, but not for the verdant nature and outdoors. Rather, it’s because the area surrounding the park is dotted with mock European attractions. A dairy farm here, a faux Italian village (complete with Leaning Tower of Pisa) there. The hotels are generally higher end and overwhelmingly Euro-themed – with names like Thames Valley, Mont Blanc and the likes. I’m pretty sure on of them has a copy of Big Ben strapped to it.

We went for U Khao Yai, themed like an Italian villa, as imagined by someone who has never visited Italy. No matter, the place is great. Spacious, welcoming, quiet and decorated with slightly sinister fairy tales (in French, natch).

Fresh from a blissful slumber and a breakfast best described as ‘fusion’ (pancakes and pad see ew, thanks for asking), we’re met by Jay and Bpoo, who run Khao Yai Jungle Tours. We used them before and would use them every time. They’re insanely knowledgeable, easygoing, smiling and able to spot all manner of wildlife which we would miss. If you get the chance to go to Khao Yai, get in touch with them. They also thought Frankie was called Pancake and I had zero intention of correcting that hilarious misunderstanding.

The three of us – myself, Frankie and our Oz-based pal – bundle into the back of Jay’s songtaew, a flatbed 4×4 with benches, and we’re off.

Outside from inside: A dreamy day safari in Khao Yai 1
Quiet morning roads

It’s a rumbling twenty minute drive to the park proper. At this time in the morning, the semi-open back of a 4×4 is a great place to be. The breeze has a whisper of coolness about it, the roads are clear, and we trundle through quiet villages, wide dusty plains and into the sloping jungle terrain of Khao Yai national park. We shoot the breeze, eat snacks, get caramel rice cakes everywhere and wait for the caffeine to kick in.

In the park, it’s straight onto the wildlife watch. Thailand is running full steam towards hot season, but in Khao Yai you’d barely know at first glance. The road is immediately swathed by a dense cloak of jungle – tall trees rearing up and thick foliage creating a wall of green. To me, the jungle parts of Khao Yai always smell like it’s just rained on a hot day. It smells like wet grass steaming in the sun, but more intense, especially as the heat builds and surrounds us.

Jay slows the car to a crawl, climbing up and up – Khao Yai literally translates as ‘big hill(s)’ – on a faintly alpine gradient. We keep our eyes peeled for beasts and birdies. I say we – we’re about as much use as a chocolate teapot in spotting creatures. Jay and Bpoo have eyes like eagles, and promptly spot one perched high up in a tree overlooking a valley. As we watch, it takes flight, gliding into the shimmering haze over the valley, probably in search of breakfast.

This is most definitely not high season in Khao Yai. The first interaction we have, human or otherwise, is with this monkey casually strolling along the road.

Outside from inside: A dreamy day safari in Khao Yai 2
Completely unbothered by us

Eventually we top out at the viewpoint; jungle giving way slightly to a more open patch of ground. When we came here last July, we got a very clear, very green view out over the valleys of the park. Today is a little different – it’s forest fire season and a faint haze of smoke hangs over the view. At the top, it’s pleasantly cool still, at least by Thai standards. There’s no sense of rush. We enjoy a spectacularly mediocre coffee and muck about by recreating the ‘don’t feed the monkeys’ signs.

Into the Khao Yai grasslands

Fully caffeinated and acting like grown ups, it’s back on the road. From this point, the park opens up into a broad area of undulating grassland framed by tall jungle. After the darkness of the jungle, we’re suddenly out under a cloudless blue sky, and the air thickens as the sun really gets to work on the day. A breeze blows patterns across the tall grass. This spot is something of a crossing point for hornbills. You hear them before you see them. A hornbill taking off sounds like a heavy helicopter spinning up, even from a long way away – a slow and crashing ‘whump-whump-whump’ coming out of nowhere. In flight, the things are absolutely gigantic, wings spread so wide they barely seem to bother flapping, just gliding endlessly. The guides get really excited about hornbills.

We slowly cruise past as deer move gently and gracefully through the grass. Some local cyclists of a somewhat advanced age struggle rather less gracefully up the hill and past us, fair play to them. We’re much more content in the shade of the car.

We wind our way through the park to the visitor centre for mysterious bureaucratic reasons – all visitors must come to the visitor centre, yet it’s some 15km inside the park. Does it make sense? No. Do we care? Nah, it’s Thailand.

While our guides go file paperwork and catch up with their buddies, we take a stroll. The visitor centre sits at the intersection of a few streams – mere trickles at this point in the season. Across the water, a bright blue bird flits in and out of sight, busy on some errand or other. Like the massive children we are, we bounce up and down on the rope bridge over the stream, making it creak and rattle and shudder. Frankie buys a painting and clutches it like a funfair prize. The staff are somewhat confused when she says she wants to buy it.

Outside from inside: A dreamy day safari in Khao Yai 3

Pedal to the metal

Jay and Bpoo furnish us with some snacks and we tuck in as we get underway again – heading for a hike. No sooner have we got to the trailhead, Jay gets a call and comes to us apologetically. “So sorry – there is an elephant a few km away. Do you want to see it? We have to drive fast.”

We’re back in the truck liked greased lightning, and Jay floors it. Gone is the leisurely pace of earlier, we’re now tearing along, unable to speak over the roar of the wind, down tracks and lanes and overgrown roads. We hold on to the railings and yearn for seatbelts, but this is also a fun drive; a free rollercoaster thrown into the day. Abruptly, we pull up in a cloud of dust, seemingly in the middle of nowhere.

“Look Pancake, elephant” – whispers Bpoo. About ten metres away, lounging in a muddy pool, is the first wild elephant we’ve ever seen. He’s delightfully unfussed about us. According to Bpoo, he’s a fairly old bull elephant and has come to the pool to cool off and rest. We spend a good twenty minutes watching him. He sprays himself with water to keep cool. Occasionally he falls asleep for a few seconds. He’s extremely tranquil to watch. It’s uncommon to see elephants out in the open this time of year, so we’re lucky to catch an extended glimpse of this stately creature.

I say stately – eventually he falls asleep so completely that he topples over like a falling redwood, collapsing into the bank with a thump. He’s still there, sleeping soundly, when we come back past an hour later.

Outside from inside: A dreamy day safari in Khao Yai 4

To the top of Khao Yai

We carry on, this time heading up to the roof of the park at the southern end. The car labours up some serious switchbacks, into deep jungle clinging to a steep mountain.

Hopping out, we tiptoe our way along a narrow trail to an outcrop looking miles out over wooded valleys. An otherwise perfect silence is punctuated by the exotic calls of birds, hooping and singing from across the valley. To the east, smoke hangs visibly in the air – this is where the main fires have been. We smell the smoke on the hot breeze. Hannah and Pancake pull their best faces for the camera and we bask in the hot sun.

Outside from inside: A dreamy day safari in Khao Yai 5

After a light lunch – a jumbled yet delicious selection of Thai favourites served out of a ramshackle open air cafe, it’s back to lower ground, and it’s hike time.

Welcome to the jungle

Around six feet into the jungle, the three of us are utterly lost. Luckily, Jay has been running tours in Khao Yai for 16 years, and knows the trails intimately. He occasionally veers left and right, tramping through a wall of vegetation, only to pop out on some sub-trail or path we would never have seen.

Jungle has a very specific smell – a pleasant fragrance a little like putting damp moss in a sauna. there’s a constant hubbub – hooting birds, a crash and scurry of some small animal, monkeys screeching in the distance. Insects buzz and flit, none of them too large, terrifying or bitey thank god.

We stumble into a family of monkeys having an outing. The bigger ones gad about, squawking and screeching, while the babies cling to trees, upside down, and stare at us with a quiet curiosity. There must be ten running around – dipping in and out of view, leaping from tree to tree like a moving version of Where’s Wally.

We tramp past gigantic trees encased in parasitic vines, rearing arrow straight a hundred feet tall. Some are so old that the original tree has completely disappeared, leaving just calcified vines wrapped around thin air

Khao Yai jungle tour hiking

It’s hard work. The heat is up, and in the thick of the forest, the humidity is tangible. It’s like walking with a damp blanket draped around the shoulders.

After a while, Jay’s magical powers of sight come up trumps again – we run across a family of gibbons. Lolling about at a dizzying height, these amazing animals are definitely as interested in us as we are in them. A guard is sent down to check us out, literally leaping between trees, the show off. At one point it makes a jump of about ten feet, directly overhead, into a full skydive posture, before casually flicking out a hand to catch a branch. It hangs there, one handed, staring at us for a bit.

khao yai gibbon
Airshow

While we’re mesemrised by the aerobatics, Jay has been setting up his telescope for a better view of the gibbons’ most prized possession: they’ve got a little baby gibbon clamped to its parent’s side, watching us.

khao yai baby gibbon
I spy

We take our time, watching the family move effortlessly around. Sometimes gibbons are noisy, a hooping bark which builds to an all out screaming contest. Today they’re quiet as mice, calm and contented while we sit and observe.

As we loop back towards the road, we take our time to spot birds, brightly coloured flares against the deep greens and brown of the forest. It’s easy enough walking, but it takes a toll after a while. The heat, the humidity, the dangling vines and overgrown paths mean it’s a relief to see the road come back into view after a good two hours of hiking. We’re well exercised by this point, and grateful for a cool drink of water and the wind in our hair as we set off towards the last part of the day.

Bat country

It’s getting towards sunset, and the wildlife is definitely more active. There’s a constant hum from the forest. At the roadside, a whole legion of monkeys are gathered and engaged in a range of activities from the family friendly to the distinctly unsavoury. The youngsters tumble into the road at will, so we move slowly. One of them has found a rose apple to snack on.

khao yai monkey

The sky turns a deep red as we emerge from the park, back into the wide plains surrounding Khao Yai. We blast past the aforementioned faux Italian village, where cars are still streaming in at the end of the day.

At the edge of one village, the evening market is just getting underway; scooters ambling down both sides of the road, stall setting up and the heady, smoky smells of grilled meats on the air as the moo ping sellers get started. We sadly have no time for tasty treats. Finally, we bounce down something between a track and just an empty bit of field, coming to rest next to a looming hillside. A few other cars are gathered against the backdrop of a setting sun. Birds of prey circle lazily over the hill, waiting.

As the sun touches the horizon, the show we’ve come for begins. High up on the hill, from an opening that’s barely visible, a stream of wrinkle-lipped bats beings to pour forth. Deep inside the hill is a labyrinthine cave system that is home to an enormous colony of bats. En masse, they arc out in an undulating, unbroken chain towards the hills of Khao Yai, all off to hunt.

The bats – up to a million can leave the caves every evening – form a wheeling, fluttering mobius strip as far as the eye can see. The air buzzes with the sound of a million wing beats. It’s hard to put this sight into words. And it just goes on. It can take an hour for the last bats to depart. Occasionally, there are scattering patterns in the line; the birds are here to hunt the bats and divebomb the line at will, sending the bats cartwheeling in all directions before reforming.

Outside from inside: A dreamy day safari in Khao Yai 6

As the chain of bats eventually slows down, our day comes to a close. We head off into the sunset – tired, dusty, and in definite need of showers, but content after a great day out.

I hope this can happen again for real soon. I hope that our amazing guides and the many similar outfits are able to get through what is surely the lowest period they’ve faced. The only saving grace for the Thai tourist economy is that the bite of global lockdown has happened at the end of the season. Here’s hoping some semblance of normality will return in time for later in the year.

Until then, we are lucky to have great memories of great times, and look forward to the next real adventures before too long.

Keep safe.

Mark Burton
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